There is no room for subtlety in American postmodernity. Banks are attempting to drum up business by insinuating that poor people have no self-control. The dragon literally melted the throne. The government … well, suffice it to say the government’s aims and messaging are extremely transparent. “Saying the quiet part loud” is so in vogue your most oblivious friend from college—you know, the one who’s involved in three different multilevel marketing companies—is using that phrase on their #Resistance Facebook group.
Seven months ago, new Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen swaggered into the Citi Field media briefing room, his hair tumescent with product and his mouth overflowing with grand promises and lofty rhetoric. In the months to come, he signed Jacob deGrom to an extension, promoted first base wunderkind Pete Alonso, and pulled off a blockbuster trade for future Hall of Fame infielder Robinson Canó and superstar closer Edwin Díaz.
On Monday afternoon, the former Stanford ballplayer and agent to the likes of Yoenis Céspedes and Jacob deGrom ambled into the same media room amid a maelstrom of public discontent. The Mets were 20-25, 6 1/2 games out of first place, having just been swept over the weekend by the Marlins, who have a chance to be the worst MLB team in living memory. (Or at least they did, until the Mets handed them three wins.) Manager Mickey Callaway’s seat was hot enough to sear a steak, and the expectation was that Van Wagenen had called the press conference to announce Callaway had been fired.
Instead, Van Wagenen gave Callaway a vote of confidence. But in unrelated news, outfielder Céspedes had sustained multiple ankle fractures while on his ranch in Florida. Céspedes, the hero of the Mets’ 2015 World Series run, is in the third season of a four-year, $110 million contract signed in November 2016; since inking that deal he’s played just 119 games due to injury, and just one in the past 53 weeks. There was some confusion over whether Céspedes had suffered multiple fractures to one ankle or one or more fractures to each of his ankles (it was the former), and whether Céspedes, a keen equestrian, had fallen off his horse.
In fact, Céspedes had just hurt himself in a “violent fall” into a hole. Subtlety may be dead, but metaphor is alive and well.
In 2018, the Mets started 11-1 before stumbling to a 77-85 finish. But under Van Wagenen, they had reloaded over the winter and looked like an outside playoff contender at the very least. Talented, but not without their flaws. It was never inconceivable that such a team could fall to five games under .500 after a mid-May losing streak; the Angels and A’s entered this season with similar ambitions only to find themselves further out of first place than the Mets, in a division led by a much better team than the Phillies. The Padres are sitting in third place and seven games back of the NL West–leading Dodgers despite lofty preseason expectations, and yet the mood around the Padres is still broadly optimistic. The Nationals, who had much higher expectations than the Mets this spring, are faring even worse.
But the Mets are different. Some of the LOLMets narrative is exaggerated, and to a certain extent this is just a decent team in a rough patch that happens to play in the rubber-walled confines of the New York media bubble. But the Mets are also deeply weird, which causes certain problems and magnifies others.
The team’s reputation for tying its own shoelaces together stems from its owners, the Wilpon family, who have spent the past decade as buffoons at the best of times. Underachieving clubs in other cities can fly under the radar because they don’t have the expectations that come with playing in The Greatest City in the World™; the Mets operate under those lofty expectations, but their owners won’t fund a team capable of meeting them. So rather than go out and sign starting pitchers Gio González or Dallas Keuchel, both of whom were available as free agents after the season started, the Mets took a black eye every fifth day by sending Jason Vargas out to the mound to compile a 5.92 ERA, before he ended up on the IL with an injured hamstring two weeks ago. (As the public speculated on whether Callaway would manage on Monday night, the Mets were scrambling to find a starting pitcher. They settled on Wilmer Font, who is on his fourth team in 13 months and has a career ERA of 6.69.)
While all three of the Mets’ division rivals signed at least one top free agent this offseason, Van Wagenen had to get creative with his Díaz-Canó blockbuster. By taking on salary from the tanking Mariners, the Mets could pick up an elite closer for a discount, but they would take on Canó’s contract only if they could dump Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak on the Mariners in return. So the trade cost them two of their top prospects: teenage outfielder Jarred Kelenic and former Boston College righty Justin Dunn. (Kelenic is hitting .298/.383/.503 in Low-A, while Dunn is striking out 12.1 batters per nine innings at Double-A, which in typical Mets fashion might not mean that much in the long run but definitely looks bad now.)
The Mets nearly denied David Wright, their best player of the 21st century, a proper send-off before his retirement last September, because allowing him to suit up again would jeopardize an insurance payment. And true to form, the pressing question about Céspedes is not how long he’ll be out, but whether the club could recoup his salary through insurance or void it altogether because of his non-baseball injury. It was Van Wagenen, of course, who negotiated that contract on Céspedes’s behalf.
Irony? Also still going strong.
Despite all the doom and gloom, the Mets’ on-field issues are fairly mundane. The Mets’ four top starting pitchers—deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, and Steven Matz—have all struggled early in the season. Michael Conforto is symptom-free after suffering a concussion last week, but there’s no timetable for his return. Despite overseeing the bullpen that broke the modern relief paradigm as Cleveland’s pitching coach, Callaway has never called on Díaz—maybe the best reliever on the planet—for more than three outs. It’s apparently a problem that Canó isn’t dashing around like Pete Rose and that Callaway didn’t bench him for a lack of hustle. Then Callaway benched him for a lack of hustle. And Van Wagenen’s vote of confidence came as rumors continue to swirl about Dusty Baker or Buck Showalter coming in to put out the fire.
The Mets, who beat the Nationals on Monday to snap a five-game skid, aren’t out of it. Alonso and Jeff McNeil are hitting like Mark McGwire and José Canseco; the pitching will rebound; and J.D. Davis, whom the Mets acquired for peanuts this past offseason, has a 118 OPS+ in 38 games. When he pitches, Díaz is still striking out 36.1 percent of his batters and has converted all 11 of his save attempts. There are still more than four months left to play, and neither the Phillies nor Braves are infallible.
But Mets history isn’t about the 108-win, championship-winning 1986 club, it’s about the 120-loss 1962 club. Not about the dominant division champions of 2006, who nearly made the World Series, but the strikeout that ended that season, and the September collapses that followed in the next two years. Through that lens, this mixture of moderate successes and annoying failures looks like the end of the goddamn world.